Failed bills make comebacks ahead of 86th Texas legislative session

Sami Sparber

Legislators have begun filing hundreds of bills they want to pass next year with the opening day of the 86th Texas Legislature less than six weeks away.

While some of the bills tackle new issues, several are repeats of legislation that failed in previous sessions. The legislature, which convenes once every two years, kicks off Jan. 8, and lawmakers have until March 8 to submit ideas for potential legislation.

In 2019, legislators will likely focus on overarching issues such as property taxes and funding for public education, said Joshua Blank, manager of polling and research at UT’s Texas Politics Project. But Blank said not to discount refiles of failed bills.

“Often times it takes a couple legislative sessions for a bill to actually get to the floor and be signed into law by the governor,” Blank said. “If we go back and see what among the 2017 special session items (the legislatures failed) on, I would assume in most cases to see those bills come back.”

One issue making a comeback in 2019 is distracted driving. In 2017, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini sponsored a bill that eventually became a statewide ban on texting while driving.

But Zaffirini said the ban on texting is flawed since it ignores other forms of cellphone use which are equally distracting. On Nov. 12, she filed Senate Bill 43, which would expand the ban to include all forms of hand-held cellphone use while driving.

“Expanding the current ban … is important because it will save lives,” Zaffirini said in an email. “Texting while driving is not the only distraction that causes fatal accidents. Other behavior(s), such as streaming music or reading newspapers while driving, is extremely dangerous.”

Zaffirini also said the ban is difficult to enforce since drivers who are pulled over can claim they were engaged in an activity other than texting.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed the ban into law during the 85th regular session, has also expressed dissatisfaction with the ban as written — but for different reasons. Abbott said the legislation leaves room for local governments to enforce stricter regulations than the state.

“We don’t need a patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas,” Abbott said in a 2017 press conference.

During the 85th special session, Abbott tasked the legislature with outlawing local restrictions on using a cellphone while driving. The proposed legislation failed to pass.

Zaffirini also submitted Senate Bill 38, which would expand the state’s definition of hazing. SB 38 is a refile of a previous bill authored by Zaffirini that failed to pass in the 84th and 85th regular sessions.

Texas law currently defines hazing as “any intentional, knowing or reckless act, occurring on or off the campus of an educational institution, by one person alone or acting with others, directed against a student” that harms a student for the purpose of being initiated into or maintaining membership of an organization, such as pledging.

Zaffirini said this definition is too vague, which is why her bill eliminates the requirement for the hazing act to “endanger the mental or physical health or safety of a student.”

“This phrasing is ambiguous and creates unnecessary challenges to enforcing the law because it often is unclear at what point hazing behavior constitutes an offense,” Zaffirini said.